Reflections on the first day of school (Monday, 11/22)
It's hard to know where to begin. It was a good day, and I am emotionally exhausted. I guess I will write about different topics, otherwise I'll just ramble with little cohesion!
The teachers: My two English colleagues, Tea and Liga are wonderful. They both speak very good English and are eager to better their grasp of the language with my help. It is obvious that they have studied British English, but they understand that I speak American English. We have already found differences in pronunciation and some word order, but nothing that keeps us from understanding one another. All the other teachers were very glad to meet me, and through Liga, asked me all kinds of questions - where I am from, what school is like in the U.S., where I went to college, what I think of Georgia, what I think of Georgian food, am I married, do I want to marry a Georgian (always the follow-up question to my not being married), all about my family - and they end each inquiry with a statement of how glad they are that I am here to help their students learn English. The two directors of the school also wanted to know all about me, and they expressed their gratitude over and over again. Everyone is so kind and curious. Most of the teachers are women - there are probably 20 women - and 2 men. One of the directors is a man, and the other a woman. I have not learned everyone's name yet -- that is going to take a while!
The students: All day long, they kept trying to sneak peeks at me, no matter where I was. They are enthralled with blonde hair, I think! Liga took me into each of the classes to introduce me to them. The grade stays together for each of their classes. There are from 6 to 30 in each class, grades 1-12. They seem very happy to have me here, giggling and smiling when I walk by them or smile at them. I was able to observe three of Liga's English classes today - grades 4, 5, and 8. The kids have a decent base-vocabulary and are very bright. I look forward to getting them to break out of their structured dialogs to have more free conversation! I know they will be shy at first, but in time, I hope they will feel welcome to express themselves.
The school: Just last week, the president of Georgia came to Shamgona to have a ceremony to open this new school building. It is remarkably nice by Georgian standards. They have a gym, a library, a cafeteria, a computer lab, a physics lab, and nice classrooms for each of the grades, as well as a teacher's room and director's office. The brand new structure stands in stark contrast next to the old school where they were meeting until last week. The old school is unbelievable! I don't know how any learning happened in there - picture the worst, crumbling, multi-story concrete building you can imagine, and then make it worse. There is no glass in the windows, the concrete is broken, the ceilings are crumbling, and the entire structure is in such bad disrepair, it could never be rebuilt. It is where they had been having school since 1919. The new building is a blessing to this town!
My feelings: overwhelmed, freaked-out, emotional, privileged, needed, wanted, blessed, incompetent -- that about does it! There were moments today that I felt like I cannot do this. There were other moments that I felt right at home. And there were others still when I felt like I don't deserve to be here. The adults keep expressing to me how thankful they are to have me here to teach their children English. They are so grateful to me for giving them the gift of learning from a native speaker. Over and over again, they thank me for coming - and then ask if I love Georgia! It is a humbling thing to come from a land of remarkable wealth to a place that is so depressed economically. The people here may not have many possessions, but they have each other - they have quality of life in their family and friends and community. I can't imagine what life was like here when the Soviets were still in power - and being just 3 kilometers from where the 2008 Russian occupation took place, the difficult times are not a distant memory - it is all still very fresh. Yet, there is joy in their eyes - maybe no smiles on their faces, but joy is in their eyes. Having lived through such difficult years, they are that much more thankful for the peace and freedom they now have. Their biggest complaint has been that the road needs to be fixed! (A very, very valid complaint!) I can take some lessons from the Georgians in contentment and satisfaction!
A little about my host family and village (Tuesday, 11/23)
I live in "Fiddler on the Roof" with some added computers, cars, and cell phones! The village I live in, Shamgona, is made up of about 500 families and is not on the map. The town sits on an island bordered on all sides by rivers. The river to the west is the border between Georgia and Abkhazia - one of the portions of Georgia that Russia invaded in 2008 and has since seceded from Georgia. The Georgian police patrol adds to the "Fidder on the Roof" feel - along with the cows, water buffalo, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, horses, dogs, and cats that roam freely. Men drive horse-drawn carts filled with sticks or hay or cabbages. Older women walk along behind cows or pigs with long sticks to nudge a wayward animal back the right way. The street is mostly dirt and stones with some broken-up pavement sections here and there. That's the biggest complaint in town - how bad the road is - and it is, indeed a valid complaint! Just walking down the road is an exercise in mobile dexterity - and walking it is just about as fast as driving it! Although Shamgona is mostly flat with a couple of rolling hills by the rivers, in the distance there are snow-capped mountains. They rise up on the horizon like gray and white cut-outs in a backdrop. They are a beautiful backdrop to this rural village - but since they are in Abkhazia, I won't be exploring them! The border is closed. Good thing there are plenty of other mountains throughout the rest of Georgia!
My host family is wonderful. The couple, Koba and Tea have two kids, Laben and Elene, and a grandmom lives with them. Koba is out of work - a common malady among the men here in Shamgona. But he takes care of the compact family farm - there are cows, water buffalo, pigs, ducks, chickens, roosters, turkeys, a garden, grape vines, hazelnut trees, citrus trees, persimmon trees, and corn. Tea teaches English at the school part time, and the rest of the time she works very hard taking care of the house. She milks her buffalo and makes her own cheese and yogurt and bakes bread. I think most of the food we eat is grown and produced here on their own land. Laben is in 6th grade and is a hearty young man. He is very nice and respectful. Elene is in 2nd grade and is very precocious! She always wants to see what I am doing and is helping me learn the right pronunciation of Georgian. She brings her books to me to practice reading in Georgian, too. Then I help her learn some English. She is good student and a strict teacher! The grandmother is very sweet and patient. She told Tea today that she wishes she could talk with me. The only thing I understand that she says to me is, "Tchame! Tchame!" -- which means, "Eat! Eat!" They are all very generous and love to laugh. Tea talks about how difficult times are economically, but how much better they are now compared to the past. No one here seems to mind talking about the Soviet times or the recent conflict. These people have lived through very difficult days.
Today I went for a run for the first time here in the village. Exercise is not a usual thing in Georgian cities, much less the villages! Everyone who was out stopped to see what in world I was doing! I greeted those that I saw with a smile and "gamarjobat" (hello) and continued down the road, picking my way between the potholes, puddles, and animal droppings. The police patrol greeted me at the end of town and gave me thumbs up - I guess they approve of my odd, non-Georgian behavior! After I got home and showered, Tea told me that a few people had called Koba to say they had seen his foreigner running down the road! A few more morning-sightings, and they will be used to my passing.
Suphras (don't pronounce the "h") (Wednesday, 11/24)
This is Georgian for "fiesta!" No word in the English language even begins to be synonymous with suphra, and a fiesta is about as close as I can get in my realm of experience. Let's just say that the Georgians know how to throw a party! The suphra is a strong tradition in the culture and there are rules to the way a suphra goes -- but my colleagues like to break the rules - and for me, that's a good thing - otherwise I'd be drunk right now! One of the ladies that teaches at my school threw this party to celebrate the birth of her new granddaughter. We went to her house and gathered in the informal "lower" house to wait until all the guests had arrived. Then we were all escorted to the "upper" house and shown into a large room with a very long table set and overloaded with food. There were so many plates on the table, you couldn't even see the table! Plates of food were packed on one level and then there were others stacked on top of the first layer. There were tall, footed bowls of fruit that had just been picked from their fruit trees - kiwi, mandarin oranges (my favorite), and something I haven't caught the name of yet that is a little like a guava without the crazy seeds. There were bottles of mineral water, soda, home-brewed wine, and home-brewed tcha-tcha (a wicked strong, sweetish vodka). All 20 or so of us women sat down at the table shoulder to shoulder and ate and talked and laughed and then ate some more. Georgian food is so good! I have to learn how to make some of these dishes! One of my favorites (besides katchapuri - cheese bread) is something that is made of pomegranate, cabbage, and walnut paste. It is amazing! When everyone is about done eating, the leader of the suphra (the "tamada") raises a glass and makes a long toast to Peace - this begins the time of toasts, and Peace is always the first toast given. The rule is that when a toast is given, you have to drink an entire glass of whatever drink you have - wine or tcha-tcha! This is the rule that all the ladies break, thank God!! I could just take a sip of my drink instead of throwing back an entire glass! Or I just raised my glass and didn't drink - unless the toast was given to me personally, and there were many of those! Toasts were given to family, friends, health, men, love, and to our school and students. One of the personal toasts that was given to me was very touching (in translation, anyway!). One of my colleagues thanked me for leaving my home and family and coming such a long distance to give their village and their children a chance for a good, successful future. Again I am humbled! The toasting went on for at least an hour and was interspersed with impromptu dances. Two of the ladies pulled me up to show me a Georgian dance, and since I catch on to dances very quickly, they kept me up dancing for every song they danced to! At the beginning of a song that was danceable, the ladies would chant, "Ste-pa-ni! Ste-pa-ni!" (There's no '"f" in the Georgian alphabet, so I am "Stepani.") The style of the traditional dance reminds me very much of "Sevillanas" - traditional Spanish dance. I hope to learn the dances a bit better in the coming months. Since we have school in the morning, the suphra ended much earlier than it would have had in been a weekend! We all left together and started walking down the lane to the main road. The ladies were so funny - giggling and walking arm in arm. Then a mini bus (a "marshrutka") came down the road and we all piled in. The driver took us all to our houses and dropped us off one by one. And even though I am so tired, I wanted to write about the night's events before I forget! I know this will not the be the last suphra I attend….
Living in a small town - make that, village! (Thursday, 11/25)
Everyone knows everyone. And most are related to somebody in the village. In this kind of place, there are no secrets. Everyone knows everyone else's business and is involved in each other's lives - for good and for bad! Ever since I arrived, the ladies that I teach with have been trying to find a different place for me to live. They don't like that I am living with Tea and Koba because their house is not the nicest one in the village. They don't want me to be in an unheated bedroom nor do they want me to be using an outdoor Turkish toilet. At school when Tea wasn't around, they talked about where to put me - Liga translated for me - but no one else who I could live with in the village speaks English. I asked Liga if there was really that much of a difference between the conditions at Tea's house and anyone else's - I told her that I don't want to elevate myself over anyone regardless of what kind of house and facilities I am used to. Liga said that I should move to a different house even if there is no English-speaker there. So I said that I would think about it. Well, of course, that became a "yes" in everyone else's book! (In Georgia, "maybe" means yes.) So at the suphra last night someone told Tea that I am moving. Grrrrrr. Tea was really upset! She told me that she will do anything, make any changes in my living arrangement in her house to keep me with her. Of course I don't like using an outdoor Turkish toilet and I would prefer to have heat in my room, but I have camped in -15 degrees for the fun of it! And it doesn't even freeze here in the winter. (I am very happy to have hot running water in a shower and to have electricity - most of the time! [Yesterday the power went off for a few hours in the whole village because someone didn't pay their electric bill. When they paid, the power came back on!]) I told her that not having heat is not an issue, and although I would prefer having an indoor toilet, I can deal with the one outside the house. She assured me that she would have Koba make some changes to make me more comfortable - she just wants me to stay. She is so kind and generous and hard working (not to mention an amazing cook)! I want to help her improve her English skills to better her career, and it would be too hard to do that if I wasn't living with her. I told her that I want to stay with her - regardless of any changes in comfort-levels - I can sacrifice comforts to help her. She has given me so much already, and I want to repay her hospitality with knowledge - since I don't have much money! I know the other teachers at school won't like my decision to stay with Tea, but they are going to have to be alright with it! I'm sure they will talk about it more, because that's what happens in tiny villages!
A couple of side-notes:
I am re-thinking what constitutes "dirty" laundry now that I have to wash my clothes by hand, wring them by hand, and hang them out to dry!
Tonight one of Tea's cousins, Zaza, brought over some jars of honey that he extracted from his bee hives. He had a large empty jar as well. He said that he wanted to make some juice for us all. He put a good amount of honey in the empty jar and said he needed two lemons. Koba went out into the yard and picked them off the lemon tree. Zaza cut them in half, squeezed the juice into the jars, threw in the rind, and filled the jar the rest of the way with water. He stirred it until all the honey was dissolved and poured it out for us -- it was delicious! Georgian lemonade!
More hospitality and generosity (Friday, 11/26)
I have never met people whose way of life is so centered on hospitality and generosity. There is nothing a Georgian wouldn't do for someone who has a need. Yesterday I had told Tea that I want to continue living with her and her family. She assured me that Koba would refinish the bathroom for me. I thanked her - and told her that while I certainly appreciated it, the change was not necessary. She disagreed and said that if I would be more comfortable with an indoor facility, she would make it happen. They had recently updated their bathroom with a hot water tank and a shower. Tea said that Koba asked her then if she wanted an indoor toilet, and she didn't think it was necessary at that time -- now she wants to add it! After school yesterday afternoon a couple of men from town came to the house and were looking around out behind the house to see where the pipes would go. And today when I got home from school, they had the trenches for the pipes dug and had all the materials - toilet included - sitting in the bathroom ready to be installed! They worked all day - dug through the spells of rain - and didn't stop until after 11 p.m. I have such mixed feelings about the change - on one hand, I am very glad for a toilet (funny thing to be thankful for…. :)), yet I am humbled that they would go to such lengths - actually changing their house - for me! I want to learn to be so giving and accommodating - with a smile and asking what else I can do. I think the root of this attitude is cultural - the Georgian society is collective, while the American society is individualistic - Americans do things for themselves singly. Georgians do things for the good of the whole. Everything they have is for everyone. Everything they do is for the good of the group. There is little thought for one's individual self or possessions. It is difficult to get past such a base belief and change the way I think. Yet, if I don't, I will not understand why the Georgians do things the way they do. And I like their generosity - I want to be so giving!
A few days ago, Tea and I took a walk around the village and she introduced me to a family who is related to Koba. Their daughter (Koba's cousin) Lika is in college in Zugdidi and she takes English classes. Her parents and Tea told her that she should come and practice her English with me. I agreed, but she shook her head and - in Georgian - said that her English is not good enough. I told her that it didn't matter - she could come over anytime and we could talk. Today she showed up! She came over with her notebook in hand with a conversation she had written for class. At first she was really shy about trying to talk, but Tea read her writing and helped her with a couple of words. Then I asked if I could read it. She sheepishly agreed and slowly handed me her notebook. I sat down with her and slowly read it aloud to her. She had written things very well, but she lacks the confidence to speak. I told her that she did a great job with it, and I would be happy to help her anytime. We talked a little bit more - slowly! She took time to think of how to ask me something, and I answered her questions and then asked her the same ones so that she could answer, too. The more we talked, the more she loosened up. I told her that I was going to take a walk (something no one does here without need). She was getting ready to leave, so I told her that I would walk her home. Along the way we chatted a little more - some in English, some in Georgian - all very broken! In some halting phrases she asked if I wanted to have some mandarins and coffee at her house. Of course I agreed! So when we got there, she and her mom picked a whole bag of mandarin oranges off the tree and put some in a bag and stacked others on a plate. Out came the china and the beautiful coffee cups and saucers. We talked a little more - this time her parents wanted to talk to me, so Lika had to work at translating! She did so well! I could see how proud she was of her ability - and her parents were so happy to hear her speaking English. It makes me feel so good to be helping these wonderful people develop an ability they value so highly! When we were done with our coffee, Lika came outside with me and we picked some roses off a neighbor's rose bush, and with the flowers and bag of oranges in hand, continued our conversation as we walked back down the road. She said that she was so tired from thinking! I know the feeling!!!!
A memorable morning run (Saturday, 11/27)
Weekends are still my (relatively) long-run days. This morning I decided to do an hour run and I went out at 8 to run 30 minutes out and then back. On my way out of town, I passed lots of people who were out tending to their animals (mostly by letting them out into the road or putting food into troughs for their pigs ..... that are in the road) and doing other morning chores. The police trucks passed me a few times and they always smile, wave or give me a thumbs up. It was a lovely morning - a bit overcast, but the mountains in the distance were topped with snow from last night's storm. I ran out of town and over the narrow, rusty, mildly scary bridge over the river. (I promise to post pictures of everything soon, but I want to stop being a novelty to everyone first! I want them to be more used to me before I start acting like I'm shooting for National Geographic!) Anyway, when I was on my way back into the village, a lady who was working in her front yard picked a gorgeous long-stemmed rose off her rose bush and handed it to me with a pleasant "dila mshvidobisa" (good morning) and a smile. I greeted her back and thanked her as I took the flower. I felt a little like the winner of some great feat being showered with flowers on return from some quest! I cradled the blossom in my hand and let the thorny stem hand down while I continued running - I still had 20 minutes to go before I'd be back home. One of the police trucks was approaching during the flower exchange, and I saw the truck stop and one of the officers got out, then got back in and they continued toward me. When they were just in front of me, the driver smiled and held out a whole hand full of roses through the open window! Taking the flowers, I laughed and thanked him, and delicately cupped the entire bouquet as I finished my run! I chuckled all the way home thinking how funny I must look - running, for one thing, and running with flowers! These poor people are never going to get over the crazy American! My favorite line so far is, "Your foreigner is running down the road!"